Boundaries, binaries, and posthumanism

In The Manifesto for Cyborgs, Haraway (2007) argues that “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machines and organisms” (p. 35). Haraway uses the cyborg as the metaphor for the post-war blurring of boundaries, for the disruption of the categories by which we organise: human and machine, physical and non-physical, etc.

In the excerpt in our reading by Hayles (1999), she takes on some of these ideas, encapsulating them in how she defines the ‘posthuman’. It “privileges informational pattern over material instantiation” (p. 2); it treats consciousness as “an evolutionary upstart” (p. 3), and it considers the body “the original prosthesis”. It’s an even more radical blurring of boundaries, a fracturing of identities and categories we use. The subject is now inescapably hybrid, embodied virtuality:

there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals (p. 3)

So far, so good. Boundaries blurred, binaries overcome. We are all hybrids. With the philosophy in mind, I tried (and struggled) to connect this to education and pedagogy, and I found a really useful article by Gourlay (2012). Drawing on the work of Haraway and particularly of Hayles, she points to the relationship between the lecture and the VLE as an example of the blurring of virtual and embodied boundaries in education:

the binary is blurred in the context between face-to-face and online engagement, as the context increasingly allows simultaneous engagement with networks of communities and sources of information beyond the physical walls of the university (p. 208)

Gourlay argues that the VLE displaces the lecturer’s biological body, shifting it to the side, while the lecturer’s voice is relativised by the effects of the displacement. The voice becomes one among many as the new setting of the lecture destabilises authority and singularity. What the lecturer says may be questioned, instantly, by the information to which the student has access (although this didn’t feel particularly ‘new’ to me). For the student, the relationship between the lecture and the VLE allows for greater hybridity, which Gourlay describes as “cyborg ontologies” (p. 208).

Gourlay’s focus on voice provides a way to explore sound and the extent to which sound(s) are embodied or not; this reframes, to an extent, Sterne’s chapter in Critical Cyberculture Studies where he bemoans the sidelining of sound studies in cybercultures research.

Yet Sterne’s main point is that we can use sound as a way to trouble any certainty we may have developed in our understanding of what cyberculture ‘is’. One of the ways in which he uses sound is as a way to upset the status quo, to keep us from complacency, and as a barrier to essentialism. He uses it in a way which is relative to the ‘dominant’ approach as it attempts to disrupt it. And that got me thinking about the way we conceive of, and write about, posthumanism. We’re still speaking of posthumanism in relation to humanism; we’re still referring to the boundaries and the binaries even as we theorise overcoming them. We’re still thinking in terms of human and machine, face-to-face or online, virtual and embodied, lecture and VLE. To an extent, this is inescapable: hybridity is relative and subjective. But are there ways in which we can account for this in our educational practice?

 

References:

Gourlay, L. (2012). Cyborg ontologies and the lecturer’s voice: a posthuman reading of the ‘face-to-face’. Learning, Media and Technology, 37(2), 198–211. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2012.671773
Haraway, D. (2007). A cyborg manifesto. In D. Bell & B. M. Kennedy (Eds.), The cybercultures reader (2nd ed, pp. 34–65). London ; New York: Routledge.
Hayles, K. (1999). How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.05711
Silver, D., Massanari, A., & Sterne, J. (Eds.). (2006). The Historiography of Cyberculture. In Critical cyberculture studies (pp. 17–28). New York: New York University Press.

What I’m reading

Bayne, S. (2015). What’s the matter with technology-enhanced learning? Learning, Media and Technology, 40(1), 5:20. http://ift.tt/2kEs2zR

In this article, Bayne argues convincingly in favour of subjecting the term ‘technology-enhanced learning’ to a far more rigorous critique. This, she contends, would fruitfully draw on critical posthumanism, considerations of the boundaries of ‘the human’, and the inescapable politics of education, how we perceive of education’s function and purpose. In a deliciously meta move, she conducts such a critique, and concludes that – among other things – she was right to do so.

I was struck by the nuanced way in which Bayne describes the enmeshment of the term ‘TEL’, and the reality (if we can call it that) to which it shorthandedly refers. I liked how she used her critique of the term to inform and illuminate her critique of what it reflects, how it is used, and the political, social, educational situation which gave rise to it.

Bayne argues that technology and education are:

co-constitutive of each other, entangled in cultural, material, political and economic assemblages of great complexity

The term TEL, and what it implies, are flawed, because it doesn’t take account of this complexity. But what’s the alternative? It’d be a hard case to push to a VC that their new spangly TEL department should be renamed the ‘Department of Co-Constituitive Assemblages of Technology and Education’. DECATE for short. But I don’t think this is really what Bayne is getting at.

Instead, I think the real message underlying Bayne’s argument is contra shorthandedness in general – the lazy binary of technological determinism vs technological instrumentalism, and the assumptions that we might make about education and technology and the relationship between the two. Bayne’s rallying call, ultimately, is for a heck of a lot of critical thinking.

 

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January 28, 2017 at 01:57PM
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Something from Scannable

Scannable Document

I usually try to make a list of the definitions of any isms that I come across in reading, and I generally aim to do this by hand, rather than on the computer. Because I write by hand much slower than I can type, I think more carefully about the words that I use, and somehow that cements the definitions in my head a bit more.

So a few words that I’ve learned this week and last:

 

Reference:

Miller, V. (2011). Understanding digital culture. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

 

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January 28, 2017 at 12:45PM
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Technology and the body

I listened to this on the way to work yesterday, and Wayne McGregor – an award-winning choreographer, responsible for the Royal Ballet, had some fascinating things to say about technology and it’s relationship to the body. It’s definitely worth a listen (like all episodes of DID), but I transcribe below what I thought was particularly relevant:

“I’m fascinated by the technology of the body, I mean, if you think about the body as the most technologically literate thing that we have, in a world where technology is developing at a rate where we can experience our lives in really challenging and interesting ways. It just feels to me that the body is central to all those conversations”.

How is the body technologically literate? And is there a way of conceiving of this without being strictly anthropocentric?

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Comment on Philip’s blog

This is a really interesting point, Philip – thank you for writing. I wonder in general about the privileging of ’emotion’ (over, perhaps, rationality?), even among humans, and whether that links in particular to the point you’ve made about the pre-programming of emotion.

Do you think this is reserved exclusively for androids? Or do you think there’s some sense of pre-programming of emotion among humans too? There appears to be some policing of emotions – in response to any event there is a spectrum of ‘normative’ emotions, and anyone behaving outside of that is treated as other, incorrect or suspicious. The digital space may affect this – allowing more or less freedom depending on the space, the possibility of anonymity, and a whole host of other factors.

I guess I’m just thinking aloud about whether we’re all (human, android, or otherwise) subjected to powerful forces which dictate the right way to behave AND the right way to feel. And – if this is the case – aren’t we all androids?

-Helen

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Tweets of the Unknown (Applet)

I promised to include a screenshot of the applet I’m using for tweets because it appears to be generally working for me, and embedding the tweets properly. This is almost definitely a result of luck, not skill, and following Cathy’s instructions.

Either I should get a lottery ticket on the way home from work… or the applet will now break… 🙂

 

 

(Confusing) Tweets and posthumanism

 

Source: @lemurph January 25, 2017 at 04:24PM

This is the quote I’m referring to in my tweet:

Technology is only a tool if it can be used properly to inspire a student – Anthony Salcito, vice-president of Worldwide Education at Microsoft

embedded tweet

It’s a weird set of words to put together – it’s ambiguous, and it’s taken me a few goes of reading through it to understand what it means. (I’m still not sure I do.) But if I were a proper critical posthumanist, what would I make of it?

On one hand, the technology is seen as exclusively material: it’s even further removed from being a ‘tool’, because it’s only a ‘tool’ if it meets certain conditions. So, not only does it require a separation of the material/technological and social, its status is dependent upon its being ‘used’ by humans in a certain way. Ergo: instrumentalist technology.

On the other hand, the technology has a ‘proper’ use – there is a way to use it properly, and if we humans are cognisant of this and able to use properly, it will ‘inspire’ our students. Ergo: determinist technology.

I’m also troubled by the use of this word ‘inspire’ – it’s so subjective, it privileges the human, it’s anthropocentric, and it’s difficult to see how it might escape a value judgment about what ‘learning’ is.

So technology-enhanced inspiration? Technology-inspired learning? No, thank you!

Lifestreams of consciousness – week 1

End of week 1, and the end of a busy old week for me. Work has been less ‘life-stream’, more ‘life-oh-look-the-dam-has-burst’, and it’s left me not only wishing I was at least a little more part-machine but also feeling a little behind in terms of study.

If I had to describe my lifestream activity this week in one word it would be tentative. I don’t really know what I’m doing yet, which is leading to me giving in to the pressure to create content for the sake of it, which is also leading to me having to constantly curate this blog to account for the fact that it’s mainly a random stream of consciousness. Yet too there’s a sense that the lifestream is meant to be a technological extension of my general contemplation on the course themes, and so the randomness of it would seem to fit.

My lifestream this week contains a few tweets about blog aesthetics, reminders of things I mean to read and think about (Donna Haraway), and a lot of Blade Runner. I got the latter off my chest in a blog post earlier today, where I wrote about empathy and what it means to be human, which led me towards the intersection between my consideration of course themes and what’s happening in the rest of the world. “Increasingly the body is seen as the principal site for the exercise of power and surveillance”, writes Miller (p. 209): in a week where the alleged number of bodies attending specific events is dominating the news, and where physical embodiment is seen as being politically relevant, this feels exceptionally well-timed.

 

More human than human

Image of Blade Runner DVD
The book and the film

Last night I watched Blade Runner for the first time in about 15 years, and I’ve recently read the book it’s based on – Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). There has been a lot of research into the posthuman, postmodern side of of Blade Runner and into the epistemological questions that emerge as a result of it. But, informed by informed by the first of our core readings – Miller’s ‘The Body and Information Technology’, but I wanted to focus on what Blade Runner tells us (or doesn’t tell us) about what it means to be human.this contains spoilers

Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, is set in a post-war, post-industrial city, decaying and toxic, inhabited by humans and replicants (bio-robotic androids). The replicants are incredibly sophisticated; it’s impossible to tell them apart on sight. And so we have this question of what makes humans human? What is it to be human? Rachel, the replicant with whom Deckard, the eponymous blade runner, falls in love, can’t tell herself whether she is human or android: this is seen as the victory of the project.

The Nexus-6 android types, Rick reflected, surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence.

The way that the hunters tell humans and androids apart is using the Voight-Kampff test, which assesses empathy:

Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida.

But within Blade Runner there’s even a question mark over whether this works. The test looks for physical signs of empathy – pupil dilation, etc., rather than feelings. It’s just performance, ultimately, one which technology is perfectly capable of recreating. It’s not necessarily anything to do with feeling. And replicants are seen to show emotion truer – on sight – than the alleged human Deckard: he is conspicuously emotionally distant while some of the replicants show emotion – Roy and Pris particularly.

Bertek links this ultimately inability to tell humans and replicants apart to Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. There’s been a reversal, Haraway says, and the technology is lively while the humans are inert (p. 194). This appears to be the case in Blade Runner – Kellner et al. provide several examples: Roy, the replicant, longs to be human, while Deckard increasingly sympathises with replicants; the replicant revolt is identified positively as a slave revolt.

So is Blade Runner posthumanist? Humans and machines are intricately connected in this post-industrial city, and there are few essential differences between them. For Lacey, it can’t ever be posthumanist because it’s mainstream cinema, and too connected to the bourgeoisie and consumerism and capitalism:

Science fiction remains the genre most able to deal with the posthuman, but whether it does so depends upon the institutional context in which films are produced (p. 198).

But it’s empathy which is foregrounded as the thing that make us human, solidarity with others to be at the core of humanity. After a day of marching in London with the Women’s March, this is ringing so true with me right now. I would be so interested to hear what the rest of you think.

Women's March, London
20th January 2017

References

Bertek, T. (2014). The Authenticity of the Replica: A Post-Human Reading of Blade Runner. [Sic] – a Journal of Literature, Culture and Literary Translation, (1.5). https://doi.org/10.15291/sic/1.5.lc.2
Brooker, W. (2012). The Blade runner experience: the legacy of a science fiction classic. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bruno, G. (1987). Ramble City: Postmodernism and ‘Blade Runner’. October, 41, 61. https://doi.org/10.2307/778330
Dick, Philip K. (1999). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? London: Millennium.
Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, cyborgs, and women : the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge.
Kellner, D., Leibowitz, F., & Ryan, M. (1984). Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique. Jump Cut, 29, 6–8.
Kuhn, A. (Ed.). (1999). Alien zone II: the spaces of science-fiction cinema. London ; New York: Verso.
Lacey, N. (2012). ‘Postmodern Romance: the impossibility of decentring the self’, in The Blade Runner Experience, ed. by Miller, pp. 190-200. New York: Columbia University Press.
Miller, V. (Vincent A. (2011). Understanding digital culture. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.
Scott, R. (2007). Blade runner : the final cut. Warner Home Video.
Telotte, J. P. (2001). Science fiction film. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.